Master of the Universe
"All the best stories in the world are but one story in reality, the story of escape. It is the only thing which interests us all and at all times, how to escape."
—Arthur Christopher Benson (1862-1925)—
Women do different things when they're depressed. Some smoke, others drink, some call their therapists, some eat. My mother used to go ballistic when she and my father had a fight, then she'd booze for days on end and vanish into her bedroom. My sister was more into the global chill mode; give 'em the silent treatment and, in the meantime, gorge on frozen Sara Lee banana cake. And I do what I have always done—go off on a book bender that can last for days.
I fall into this state for different reasons. Sometimes it's after an "I hate your fucking guts" fight. Other times it's symptomatic of my state of mind, ennui up to my ears, my life gone awry, and that feeling of dread whenever I'm asked what I'm doing. How can anyone sort all this out? All things considered, I'd rather read. It's the perfect escape.
I have a whole mantra for my book binges. First of all, I open a bottle of good red wine. Then I turn off my cell phone, turn on my answering machine, and gather all the books I've been meaning to read or reread and haven't. Finally, I fill up the tub with thirty-dollar bubble bath, fold a little towel at the end of the tub so it just fits in the crick of my neck, and turn on my music. I have an old powder-blue plastic Deco radio near the tub that I bought at a garage sale in Hollywood a few years ago. The oddest thing: the radio only receives one AM radio station, which plays jazz standards from the forties and fifties, and it suits me just fine.
Within my bathroom walls is a self-contained field of dreams and I am in total control, the master of my own elegantly devised universe. The outside world disappears and here, there is only peace and a profound sense of well-being.
Most of the people in my life take a dim view of this . . . what would you call it? Monomania? Eccentricity? My sister is perhaps the most diplomatic. We both know that I have a tendency to lose my tether to reality when I close myself off like this. But then she'll joke that I'm really just another boring bibliomaniac and what I really need is a little fresh air. She always was a whiz with words. She actually informed me that a book she read by Nicholas Basbanes (appropriately called Among the Gently Mad) states that the first documented use of the word bibliomania came in 1750 when the fourth earl of Chesterfield sent a letter to his illegitimate son warning him that this consuming diversion with books should be avoided like "the bubonic plague." Ho hum.
I peel off my clothes and throw them on the floor. As I'm walking to the tub, I glance at the floor-to-ceiling mirror that covers the south wall of my bathroom. Oh god. Wait a minute. You know how you look in the mirror and you look the same and you look the same and all of a sudden you look ten years older? It's fitting that at age thirty-five I should notice this. My waist is thicker, my breasts saggier, the beginnings of--shit, is that cellulite on the backs of my thighs? Why is it that you think this age thing won't happen to you? Oh, and look at the backs of my elbows! They look like old-lady wrinkled elbows with a sharp, bony protrusion.
I've never been able to figure out my looks. I've been told I'm striking. But what does that mean? It's something people say when they can't give you the usual compliments, like "you're beautiful." It could be my height that puts them off. I'm almost five foot ten, which has only recently become fashionable. I also have enormous feet. Size 10 on a good day.
When I was young, I hated my tall, too-thin, sticklike figure, which my mother described as willowy. She'd argue that my looks were special and would be appreciated when I got older. Just give yourself time, she'd say. You'll see. You'll outshine all those other girls with hourglass figures. I felt like Frankie in The Member of the Wedding: "a big freak . . . legs too long . . . shoulders too narrow . . . belonging to no club and a member of nothing in the world."
It wasn't just my appearance. I always felt like an oddball, the exception in a world where I imagined other families were normal and happy. Virginia and I endured the secrets and shame of an absent father and an alcoholic mother, and the few friends I had, I kept at a distance, always relieved when they didn't come over. The fact of the matter was that I was embarrassed that my mother couldn't cope, and in some ways, she passed that on to me.
I shut my eyes as I get into the tub. I have purposely made the water scalding hot and when I dip my foot in, my toes turn red and start to sting. Too hot. I add a little cold, letting the water run through my fingers as I listen to a tinny version of Coltrane blasting out "Love Supreme." Paul Desmond once said that listening to late-night jazz is like having a very dry martini. I think he's right.
I stick my foot back in and then ease my body into the water. Still too hot. I twist the spigot with my toes, adding more cold. There. Perfect. I pick up The Transit of Venus, an obscure novel by Shirley Hazzard, whose newest book, The Great Fire, has become a favorite among book clubs. The premise is fascinating. It's about two beautiful orphaned sisters whose lives are as predestined as the rotation of the planets. I try to concentrate. The prose is dense and complex; I have to keep rereading paragraphs. I start to daydream and lose my place. This isn't working for me. Basically, I'm still depressed.
Maybe it's just the time of year. It's Christmas, I'm alone, and my social prospects are nonexistent. This is the season to be somewhere else, and for the majority of my friends, that means packing up the kids and maybe a few of their best friends and migrating to second homes in Maui, Aspen, Cabo, Sun Valley, and the second tier, Palm Springs and Las Vegas.
Being in West L.A. in December is like being banished to an isolated retreat or even a rehab center where parties and other forms of merriment are verboten. Not that I'm complaining. If you come from the east, the weather here in December is glorious. Right up until the El Ni-o rains in late January and February, the world is temperate, mild, and forgiving. Natural disasters like fires, floods, landslides, and earthquakes don't happen in West L.A.
This year I have no plans to go anywhere and I am occasionally nagged by that insidious feeling of "missing out." When I was with Palmer, we used to go to the Four Seasons on Maui every year. We'd get the corner suite and even bribe a beachboy to reserve our lounges every day to avoid getting up at five a.m. like everyone else. (In truth, most of our friends just had their nannies do it.) Now I hear Palmer is going to St. Barts. He thinks it's "younger, hipper, and more fun," unlike being with me. I used to sit by the pool in the shade and read all day.
The phone rings. It's my sister, Virginia. She sounds worried. "I know you're there, Dora. Why haven't you returned my calls? If you don't pick up I'm coming over . . ." I pick up.
"I'm okay," I say.
"You don't sound okay. Are you doing another one of your book-hermit things?" Nobody knows me like Virginia.
"I've been a little upset."
"A little, like twenty-four hours little or a little, like three days little?"
"Like three days little."
"Doesn't sound little to me. Do you want me to come over?"
I look around. My place is a shambles. "No. Really. I'm fine. I was just going out."
I convince her that I'm simply marvelous and she buys it. She just doesn't get it. She has a husband and a baby. Who can blame her?
I pick up the Hazzard book and try again. This is so depressing. I have just finished an early chapter about Ted Tice, Paul Ivory, and Caro, and I can already tell they are all eventually doomed to lives of unspeakable loss and tragedy. For one thing, Paul is gay, or at the very least bisexual, and for another--oh forget it.
I get out of the tub, grab a robe, and go back to the bookshelf, leaving wet footprints in my wake. It's not really intentional, but generally speaking I gravitate toward a certain theme for these lost weekends and, at the moment, I am set on choosing books about relationships that don't work out. Since most of the world's greatest classics deal with this subject, I have lots of options. Also, for some strange reason, my books are loosely organized into categories so it's easy to make a selection based on my mood. Let's see, do I want to steep myself in obsessive love . . . something like Wuthering Heights, where Heathcliff never did get it on with Cathy . . . unrequited love, dysfunctional love, adulterous love . . . Oh, here's Dorothy Parker . . . the brilliant cynic with deadpan wit alternating with fits of spiteful alcoholic rage (hmmmm) and Austen, the optimist. Her love affairs always work out. Not interested. Over here are the dysfunctional family books, including my mother's dog-eared copy of The Optimist's Daughter, and on the shelf below, the functional family books, mostly fantasies, sci-fi, or adventure classics that I have treasured since my childhood. I finally gather up the following: Sentimental Education by Flaubert (I lent Virginia my copy of Madame Bovary, which should be right beside it, and she never returned it. You see? That's why I don't lend books. It fucks up my whole library.), Anna Karenina, The End of the Affair (miracles and horrid disfigurements), Wuthering Heights (all right, I feel like wallowing), and A Farewell to Arms. God, what a dreary bunch of bathmates. Perfect for my grim, listless state of mind. That'll do for now. Oh well, I'll throw in Parker too. What the hell, a little comic relief.
I pad back into the bathroom with an armful of books and sink back into the tub. I add more hot water. Okay. I'm ready for my period of forlorn contemplation and occasional outbursts of exhilaration prompted by a particularly brilliant passage. What an insufferable lunatic I have become.
Over the next few days I read and I read. Days blur into nights. I snack on anything in my cupboard that doesn't require cooking. The Domino's guy and I have become close friends. He thinks I have agoraphobia. My red wine runs out and I start on the dessert wine. But I don't start before five. Even in my pathetic condition, I do have my standards.
My god, it's Wednesday afternoon already. I've got to get out of here. Where's my robe? Geez, this place is a mess. Should I clean up first? No. It'll kill the rest of the day. Maybe I'll buy a book. My mother would be appalled to learn that none of my friends go to the library anymore. If you want a book, you just go to the bookstore that's closest to your house and buy it. Hardcover, trade paperback, mass market, it doesn't make any difference. People who pay twenty dollars for parking don't quibble over the price of a book.
I live four blocks from McKenzie's, a small local bookstore on San Vicente, one of those dinosaurs that doesn't exist anymore except in affluent neighborhoods. It's a place where the salespeople actually read and can tell you where you can locate books by Evelyn Waugh or Michael Frayn. They'll also give you a list of other books by the same author, quote some of their favorite passages, and then add some completely random piece of information, such as the fact that Mark Twain's brilliant The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn went through seventeen hundred revisions, and the most recent draft was unearthed in a Hollywood attic some years ago.
There isn't a reason in the world for me to hit that damn bookstore again this week. I have four brand-new books by my bedside and two more on the kitchen counter. Then there are the three Booker Prize winners that are still in the bag in the trunk of my car and one new nonfiction literary history of Henry James in my purse, which I plan to start when I go to the hairdresser's next week.
I collect new books the way my girlfriends buy designer handbags. Sometimes, I just like to know I have them and actually reading them is beside the point. Not that I don't eventually end up reading them one by one. I do. But the mere act of buying them makes me happy--the world is more promising, more fulfilling. It's hard to explain, but I feel, somehow, more optimistic. The whole act just cheers me up.
I pull into the parking lot, turn off the motor, and rummage through my purse for lip gloss and concealer. I flip down the mirror and take a good look at my bare, unmade-up face. Terrible, just terrible. Even worse than I thought. That's it for me. No more book binges.
My hair is nice, though. It used to be "dirty blonde," but Franck, my brilliant Belgian hairdresser, has fixed all that. I now have that natural, sun-kissed California look that no one can get without a lot of money and a cauldron of chemicals.
I smear on some Nars cherry lip gloss, decide to bag the rest of the makeup, and head in. McKenzie's is like no other bookstore. It is a complex of three white, cottage-like buildings situated around a small tree-lined plaza with benches for customers to sit and read, nurse a cappuccino, or just hang out. There is a small cafe that sells newspapers and magazines, and a big sign over the cash register reads "No Cell Phones." Other buildings house history, psychology, fiction, and nonfiction. I always start off in the fiction building, where there are long tables laden with the latest hardbacks. And occasionally, when I have time, I'll wander briefly through the other buildings. Each one has the same basic feel of being in someone's messy library or living room, an ambiance that appeals to someone who is obviously a bookworm or an intellectual and who compulsively owns and collects countless numbers of books. Even though there is some semblance of order, books are always stacked high in every corner, on the brick floor, on window ledges, even on the cash register table, where one has to literally shove them on the floor before making a purchase.
From the Hardcover edition.
1. Doras passion for literature infuses everything she does. How has literature played a role in your life? Have books ever carried you through rough times?
2. Longing is only one of the universal themes/issues that the book explores. Others include abandonment, social acceptance and escape. Discuss how these themes are woven into the book.
3. Dora often refers to classics from her childhood like The Wind in the Willows and A Wrinkle in Time. What book from your childhood still resonates with you? Have you ever re-read it? Do you ever reread the books you love?
4. In what ways does Dora connect with some of her favorite authors: i.e., Eudora Welty, Mark Twain, Carson McCullers, Dorothy Parker, Edith Wharton. Others?
5. Certain passages in Literacy and Longing in L.A. pay homage to classic and popular authors in subtle, almost code-like fashion. How many “codes” can you find and who are the authors?
6. How do Dora and her sister Virginia personify different reactions to their dysfunctional upbringing? How is “family” depicted? Sometimes we are asked to make sacrifices to help family members. How far would you go to help your relatives, and just how much do we owe the people we love?
7. Comment on L.A. as a character in the book? Would this novel feel the same if it were set in the Midwest? Manhattan? How do the specific locales enliven the story for readers in and outside of L.A.?
8. How does meeting Bea change Dora? If you had to name an author who created your mother, who would it be? Wilde? Austen? James? Welty? Or, God forbid, Dickens?
9. Have you ever fallen for the bad boy? What else does Fred offer Dora other than sexy, romantic interludes and poetic discourse? Why would a woman need or want anything more?
10. How does Dora deal with her mother's alcholism and the absence of her father? Does she ever really forgive her mother?
11. Does the character of Darlene serve merely as comic relief? Other than the Shakespearean fool, does she symbolize anything else?
12. How would this story change if it were told in the third person? Would it even work? How much of Doras inner voice accounts for reality?
13. Is the book a satire, drama or romantic comedy?
14. How satisfying is the ending? At the end of the novel, is Dora finally content?